Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Film #45:The Searchers (1956)

Director: John Ford

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 12 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Cantankerous Indian fighter tracks down a pack of Comanche who have kidnapped his niece.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Texas, 1868. Hardened Indian fighter and former Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother Aaron's ranch after several years of wandering the plains. He hopes to settle down close to Aaron's family: his wife and their 10 and 16-years old daughters, Lucy and Debbie. He also finds their adopted nephew, the handsome, energetic, 1/8 part Indian, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Ethan gives Martin nothing more than suspicious glances and the proverbial cold shoulder.

The next morning, several Texas Rangers arrive at the ranch to deputize Aaron and Martin into a posse. They are responding to a report of Comanche raiders nearby. The two men agree to go, as does Ethan. After several hours' ride, they find that the Comanche have merely killed several cattle as a diversionary tactic. Ethan realizes that this was to draw the fighting men away from the two nearby ranches so that they could conduct what Ethan calls a “murder raid.” When they return to the ranch early the next morning, they find Aaron and his wife brutally murdered and Lucy and Debbie gone, taken by the Comanche war chief known as “Scar”.

Martin Pawley is only just beginning his long, long journey with the angriest, nastiest Indian hater this side of Pecos.

Ethan and Martin accompany the remaining Rangers and begin tracking the Comanche raiders. Upon finding a dead Comanche buried, Ethan ruthlessly shoots out the dead man's eyes, so as to rob his spirit of the ability to find the afterlife. The Rangers and Martin are shocked at Ethan's apparent and deep racial hatred.

After continuing for a while longer, the search party is attacked by several dozen Indians. They manage to escape and fight them off, but Ethan once again turns brutal. Even when the attackers turn to flee, he continues firing his rifle into their backs. The Rangers decide to take one of their wounded comrades into town, and Ethan, Martin and the young Brad Jorgenson, Lucy Edwards' boyfriend, continue the pursuit.

Eventually, as the trio prepare to camp for the night, Brad sees Scar's war party and a person he believes is Lucy, since he recognizes her dress. Ethan then reveals that he had just earlier that day found Lucy's corpse in a narrow canyon, which he hadn't revealed so as not to upset Brad. In a rage, Brad blindly storms into Scar's camp and is promptly gunned down.

Ethan a Martin take a brief respite at the Jorgenson's home, where Martin is reunited with Laurie, who loves Martin. She wants Martin to stay with them, but he decides to accompany Ethan on his pursuit of Scar and Debbie. By now, Martin deeply suspects that Ethan may see Debbie as no longer “white”, but rather a Comanche, and therefore kill her with the same murderous contempt he has for other Indians.

Over the next several years, Ethan and the stalwart Martin scan the southwest from northern Texas into New Mexico. They travel through the changing seasons, Martin accidentally purchases and Indian wife, whom he banishes, and the two men even come across a group of white women who had been rescued from Comanche servitude. All are deranged, but none is Debbie.

The first of several winters sets in as the search for Debbie continues...

In New Mexico, the pair finally track down Scar's camp, thanks to a local Mexican man. Though Scar knows who they are and what they are after, decorum forces him to invite them into his tepee to trade. Inside, they finally find Debbie (Natalie Wood), now fifteen years old and one of Scar's wives or servants. Ethan and Martin barely refrain from reacting, but they leave in short order and regroup nearby, out of sight of Scar's camp.

As they talk over their next move, Debbie rushes over a hill to them. Martin runs to greet her, but Debbie warns them to run away, explaining that the Comanche are her people now and that Scar means to kill them both. On hearing this, Ethan pulls his gun to kill Debbie, only to be blocked by Martin. Scar's war party interrupts the standoff and the men have to hop their horses and flee. They escape once again, but not before Ethan takes a poison arrow to the shoulder. They race back to the Jorgenson's ranch in Texas.

At the Jorgenson's, Ethan and Martin arrive just as Laurie is about to marry local mailman and suitor, Charlie McCory. Despite having been away for five years, Martin is livid and gets into a fistfight with Charlie over Laurie. Once the dust settles, Charlie calls the wedding off and the Rangers who are in attendance prepare to take Ethan and Martin under arrest for a misunderstood murder and not-so-misunderstood string of robberies from Ethan's post Civil War years. Just then, a Union cavalryman arrives to report that they have found Scar's war band on the outskirts of the ranch. All men present saddle up and set out.

Debbie, now absorbed into the Comanche culture. Does The Duke kill her or rescue her?

When the Rangers get to the camp, Ethan wants to charge into the camp, not caring if it means that Scar will likely kill Debbie on the spot. Martin convinces Ethan and the Rangers to let him try to rescue Debbie before they and the cavalry assault the camp. He does so, quietly creeping in, waking Debbie, convincing her to leave with him, and even killing Scar. Just then, the cavalry storms in, killing or dispersing every Comanche in sight.

In the chaos, Debbie gets away from Martin, sees Ethan and runs away. Ethan knocks aside the pleading Martin and chases Debbie. He catches up to her in a nearby cave, where she falls to the ground. He picks her up and, instead of murdering her, he cradles her in his arms, saying “Let's go home, Debbie.”

They return to the Jorgenson house, in which everyone goes inside after a joyous reunion. Everyone, that is, except for Ethan, who walks off of the porch and back onto the plains, the door closing behind him.

Take 1:My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research)

I count a handful of Westerns among my absolute favorite movies of all time, regardless of genre. The Searchers is not one of them. Far from it, in fact.

There are a couple of elements that I think explain why this movie is placed within the pantheon of “Wild West Masterpieces”, but there's really only one that I think explains why its given loftier status than any of John Wayne's other 5,672 western movies (well, it sure seems like there are that many, anyway), and it's that one that gave me the only thing to sink my teeth into.

So what was the one thing? Simple. Ethan Edwards. The character is so truly dark that he's fascinating. In a depressing way, he represents exactly everything that invites scorn upon Americans from basically everyone else: he's bigoted, arrogant, surly, aggressive, bullying and cold. But more importantly is that he's pragmatic and, above all, capable. All of those former adjectives wouldn't matter a whit if it were an ineffectual weakling who possessed them. Ethan Edwards, however, is a homicidal racist who not only wants to kill every Indian he sees, but also can kill every Indian he sees. The Searchers at least acknowledges this by having all other characters sense it and distance themselves from Ethan, even when he's a military compatriot or even blood kin. The final shot of the movie really says it all, which is certainly why it ranks as one of the most memorable closing scenes in history.

Here's one of the earliest examples of Ethan's bone-deep hatred of the Comanche. The video quality is horrid, but that's not really where the strength of this scene comes from. Start it at 6:00:

This brings up the other clear merit of the film – the cinematography. To anyone who has seen any of John Ford's movies, this should come as no surprise. Within the medium of the sweeping epic western, the man was a master of setting, costumes, and shot framing. The high def DVD that I watched the film on, remastered in 2007, truly highlights the vibrancy that visually set apart such Technicolor works in the same way as Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin' In the Rain. After watching almost exclusively black and white films of late, The Searchers simply glows.

Here's the opening scene. While the true power of it is mostly lost on a tiny youtube screen, I think you can get the point:

This, though, is not an entirely good thing to me, and this leads me to the reasons I don't particularly like this movie. As of today, my favorite westerns are The Wild Bunch; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Film #63 on this list); The Outlaw Josey Wales; and Unforgiven (Film #91). If you've seen these movies, you can understand the common thread, and no, it's actually not merely Clint Eastwood. The shared element is that each one was a well-balanced blend of the real old west and the mythical old west, though each of these three films weighs one vision more heavily than the other. The Searchers gets the balance completely wrong, in my view. This despite Ethan Edwards being a prototype for the apocalyptic Will Munney in Unforgiven.

A lot of the film comes off as just another hokey, Hollywood western. Any dialogue not by Ethan is ridiculously corny, the comedy is sophomoric at best, and nearly all characters aside from Ethan are complete cookie cutters straight from the “Mass Appeal Western Cookbook”. The only positive about any of this is that it makes Ethan's callous, primitive worldview and his blood lust stand out in even starker contrast. Amidst the dullard jocularity and melodrama around him, Edwards seems even more of an emotional abyss. Still, this doesn't make all of these elements palatable to me. It became roughest for me at the end with the wedding scene, in which the most annoyingly buffoonish character of the bunch, Charlie McCory, is given his moments of “comic” relief. Maybe his dim-witted mannerisms were good fun fifty years ago, but by today's standards, they are on the same level as a pie in the face.

The other major problem with this movie is the pacing. The tale, stretching over five years, gets pulled forward in bizarre and dizzying fits and starts, with sparing clues as to the passage of time, aside from some clumsy or obvious bit of dialogue, and two very brief moments when the men are in winter snow. I assume that John Ford's intent was to convey the arduousness and length of the pursuit, but it may as well have been telling a real time story: the movie is two hours long, and it almost seems as if that's exactly how long Ethan and Martin take to find Debbie. No more, no less. The two men and Scar don't age in any visible way, Martin continues to be childishly naïve and impulsive, and Ethan's last-minute change of heart doesn't seem to have any visible cause. It all comes off as rather contrived.

So this brings me back to the same question I ask when one of the film's on the TIME list does not impress me: Why is it considered a classic?

My best guess is that the character of Ethan Edwards was such a dark departure for John Wayne, and it stood out so clearly amidst the otherwise safe, harmless backdrop and characters, that it is seen as having unprecedented depth. True that it has more depth than the Roy Rogers version of the wild west, but I still think that it's been far outpaced in the intervening decades. I'll take Sergio Leone over John Ford any day of the week and twice on Sunday. (Sunday is spaghetti western day!) I like my westerns will wall-to-tobacco-stained-wall roughnecks, and if a film is going to be a dark character study, the director needs to go all the way. While Ford went further than anyone else had back in 1956, artistic evolution has dimmed its power, in my view.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research)

OK, so maybe I was a bit harsh. Not much, though.

After listening to some commentary by several directors, including one of my favorites, Martin Scorsese, I'm willing to cut this movie a little more slack. There were clearly a few elements that I didn't fully perceive or realize upon this most recent viewing, but I believe I had good cause.

Probably the main thing that I should give more credit for is the way that the theme of religion runs through the picture. While John Ford's films have accurately been described as “Catholic”, The Searchers gives us a thoroughly un-Catholic protagonist. Through Edwards' interactions with the Ranger/preacher Clayton, and his expositions on Indians, we see him to be all but an atheist.

Something else that deserves a little more credit is the camerawork. While I did laud this in my Take 1, I was made aware of more than the majestic shots of Monument Valley. John Ford was actually a highly skilled visual storyteller, as evidenced throughout The Searchers. Many thoughts, emotions, and dynamics are conveyed through facial expressions and body language. This is something that far too many films are missing these days.

Many point to the similarity between the Ethan Allen and Scar characters. True that one could see them as the same man, separated by their racial backgrounds; however, I think it goes a little too far when some assert that this serves as proof that The Searchers portrayed Native Americans in a more positive, sympathetic light. The movie seems to have made a few strides past previous ones, but they are very small strides. Of course, such a thing was not to be very well done in commercial movies for at least ten years, and only truly shone through in the massively successful films like Dances With Wolves or Last of the Mohicans.

As far as critics go, I have to agree with a lot of this original TIME magazine review from back in 1956. That review, however, smacks of a writer who had had enough of John Ford/John Wayne films. The reviewer admits to the clear merits, but clearly felt the same way that I did about the pacing. Glad I wasn't the only one.

It is only proper that I end with the final scene of the movie, one that is often regarded as one of the greatest in film history. I have to say, I may not love the movie, but I can see people's point:

That's a wrap. 45 shows down, 60 to go.

Coming Soon: Aparajito (1957)

Part 2 of the Apu Trilogy. Last we saw the cute little Bengali bugger, he was on the back of a horse cart with his dejected mother and father, heading for Benares. I'll have a look in on the lad and see how things work out for him.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.